From Meatloaf to Manuscript

The Pima Writers' Workshop lacks Breadloaf's prestige, but its servings of literary advice are just as beefy.

Got a novel, screenplay or award-winning poem lurking somewhere inside? Do you get lost in books and wonder how writers do it?

Meg Files, author and chair of the English department at Pima Community College, hosts the perfect forum to glean answers to almost any writing question at the upcoming Pima Writers' Workshop May 24-27. She's built this annual event into a highly respected conference that attracts readers, writers and aspiring authors from all over the country.

Headlining this year is Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek. This lyrical novel, wrote a reviewer, is "a beautiful, gracefully written story of the hard life of a remarkable mountain woman at the turn of the last century." Gap Creek not only graced the New York Times bestseller list and won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, but also was selected for the much-coveted Oprah Book Club.

Here's an opportunity to talk and consult with professionals, and to attend three days chock full of sessions that include the stories behind the stories as well as time to put pen to paper and write.

"I instigated the workshop," Files said. She cut her teeth on the Colorado Mountain Writers' Workshop and the University of Maryland Writers' Conference in Tokyo before coming to teach at Pima in 1987. "Right away I proposed setting up a writers' workshop, because I thoroughly enjoy gathering writers together." Pima was enthusiastic, and supported Files' proposal with an in-house grant to get it started. The first year saw three speakers and 40 participants. The conference is now self-sufficient, and in its 14th year will host 14 book professionals, including a screenwriter, editors and agents. More than 250 participants are expected.

Files has attended the famous, high-powered Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. "I enjoyed it," she said, "but I think of my conference as Meatloaf. We're more down to earth."

Files begins planning the conference in September for the following May. "Last fall, I'd just read Robert Morgan's wonderful novel Gap Creek and wondered about inviting him to speak at the conference when a former student, now at Cornell, happened to mention that she'd been working with him there. She told him about the glories of Tucson (and the conference itself--and she knew because she served as student assistant and attended for several years as well), and soon he'll be on his way here.

"The conference has a friendly, supportive atmosphere," said Files. "The faculty I invite are accessible and generous." The weekend is bliss for writers and bibliophiles alike.

During each of the last four years, Files included someone new on the publishing horizon, a writer with a well-received first book: "It gives encouragement to new writers--it can be done." This year it's Masha Hamilton, whose novel, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, is a Barnes & Noble "discovery" book.

Last year's debut novelist was J.R. Dailey, author of The Yellow Ribbon Snake. Dailey has the distinction of also being one of the conference's success stories. Her book came about after she met a publisher at the conference in 1998. Dailey has attended every year since 1991. "It's a great experience," she said. "Even though I've published a book and several short stories, I still keep going because it's well organized and fun. It takes me out of my life for three days. I feel like I'm a writer when I'm there."

Nancy Turner, author of the critically acclaimed These Is My Words, started at the conference as a student assistant. In 1999, she returned as a featured speaker.

And then there's the revered Nancy Mairs, who won a Western States Book Award for her volume of poetry In All the Rooms of the Yellow House. She will return for a command performance again this year. Her most recent book is Waist-High in the World: A Life among the Nondisabled.

Children's book author and illustrator Shonto Begay will also be on hand. His Ma'ii and Cousin Horned Toad won the Arizona Author Award and Best Book Award along with the American Library Association's "most notable" award for his art and poetry book Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa.

Literary agents from New York and San Francisco agencies will talk about acquiring an agent and the publishing process. Randy Summerlin, who owns an independent book production company, will show how to write a winning book proposal. Jack Heffron, senior editor for Writer's Digest Books and Story Press, will discuss current publishing trends and options. Sharman Apt Russell, whose newest book is Anatomy of a Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers, and Kathy Eldon, documentary and feature filmmaker, will also share their expertise.

Free and open-to-the-public sessions at Pima's West Campus Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 2202 W. Anklam Road, will be held Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 p.m. Friday, Will Shetterly, whose books include Thor's Hammer, Dogland and Chimera, will read along with poet and memoir writer Judy Ray and Jack Heffron, the aforementioned editor who also publishes short stories. Saturday's open readings include Emma Bull, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and David Ray, author of 15 books of poetry.

For registered folks, a meet-the-authors opening reception will kick off the weekend with a reading by Robert Morgan at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, at InnSuites Hotel, 475 N. Granada Ave., just south of St. Mary's Road. Registration is possible at the door. Noncredit is $65. To take the weekend for credit, the tuition is $85. One-session tickets cost $15. "I'm determined to keep it reasonable; I want it to be accessible, especially to new writers," said Files. Most other conferences of this caliber cost $200 or more. Friday through Sunday, the conference takes place at the Pima West Campus Center for the Arts.

Want to purchase books for autographing? Antigone Books will be doing the honors. The store is also donating a portion of the proceeds to help defray the cost of the conference. Another of Tucson's independents, Reader's Oasis, provided funding for two scholarships.

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